Pittsburgh Pirates: 3 up and 3 down

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94 wins for the Pittsburgh Pirates. A storybook ending to a franchise-crippling 20-year losing streak. An electric Wild Card victory over the hated Cincinnati Reds in front of a packed PNC Park, followed by stretching the eventual NL Champion St. Louis Cardinals to the brink of elimination.

And then? Nothing.

For fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, they have to wonder what in the world came of an offseason that offered so much potential. After countless promises from team ownership that they would invest meaningful dollars into a competitive payroll when fans increased attendance (and fans did, up 40% since 2009), and when the Pirates became competitive (and players did, with the 4th best record in MLB in 2013), ownership didn’t follow through.

Heading into 2014, Pittsburgh is one of only two teams whose payrolls actually decreased from 2013. (The New York Yankees are the other, and they deserve some slack, as they dropped around half a billion dollars on free agents this offseason alone.) The Buccos’ projected $70,000,000 payroll is 3rd lowest in all of Major League Baseball, above only the rebuilding, 100-loss franchises of the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins.

So can the Pirates offer fans a 90-win encore, after the non-contested departures of SP A.J. Burnett (191 IP, 209 K, NL-leading 9.8 K/9) and OF Marlon Byrd (24 HR, .847 OPS, 138 OPS+), and no offseason free agent enforcements?

pittsburgh pirates

Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen once again has much of the offense to carry

3 Up

Best case scenario

Bolstered in June by rookie call-ups OF Gregory Polanco and SP Jameson Taillon, the Pirates supplement gaping holes in the rotation and rightfield left relatively vacant after the offseason departures of Burnett and Byrd. Lingering above .500 for much of July, GM Neal Huntington finds a way to acquire a legitimate first base bat near the Trade Deadline without giving up the farm, finally ending an unproductive Gaby Sanchez / ? ? ? platoon. CF Andrew McCutchen doesn’t repeat as NL MVP, but posts a 135 OPS+ to pace a middling offense that has just enough to squeak into the Wild Card ahead of the Reds on the final day of the regular season.

Most important Pirates

For Pedro Alvarez, 2014 is his season to shine. The mercurial third baseman began 2013 in a slump, had super-agent Scott Boras publicly pine for a contract extension- which the Pirates did not acknowledge- only to rebound and co-lead the NL in home runs with 36. But in typical Alvarez fashion, those 36 jacks were accompanied by another league-leading output: 186 strikeouts. Despite two straight 30+ HR seasons, Alvarez has yet to post an OPS above .790 at the MLB level, largely due to the former 1st round pick’s struggles to reach base (.306 career OBP).

But when the 27-year old lefty is locked in, he’s one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, and his absurd 1.362 OPS during the 5-game NL Divisional Round against the Cardinals showed how the Vanderbilt product has the potential to overtake a series almost single-handedly. The 6’3″ lefty has shown ability to stay at the hot corner defensively, and avoiding the move across the diamond to first means the career 106 OPS+ hitter has value, even if he doesn’t improve on current levels. But with only two arbitration years remaining, it’s imperative for the Pirates to reach a long-term decision on Alvarez.  Soon.

Potential Breakout Players

AAA farmhand studs Polanco and Taillon have to be everyone’s top picks, but both are saddled with as much uncertainty as they are potential. Anyone who assumes Gregory Polanco to be in the wiry athletic, 5’10″-6’1″ mold of McCutchen and fellow outfielder Starling Marte are surprisingly mistaken when seeing him in person. The towering 6’4″, 22-year old Dominican native will rank among the top-30 on many prospect lists in 2014, and with good reason. While the lefty outfielder oozes plus tools in many areas, his rapid ascent through the system (beginning 2013 in High-A) raises questions over whether expecting Polanco to produce at a high Major League level in 2014 is wishful thinking a year too early.

With a more polished arsenal and a very respectable 95-96mph fastball, some scouts were actually higher on SP Jameson Taillon than 2013 rookie phenom 100-mph fire-baller Gerrit Cole. Unlike Cole however, Taillon’s career 3.72 minor league ERA causes some to doubt his ace potential, and the 6’6″ Texas high school product has seen his prospect status coast from a consensus top-20 rating in 2013 to a more moderate top-50 rating this year. Expecting these prospects to single-handedly atone for the Pirates’ non-existent presence on the offseason free agent market this season may be jumping the gun by a year or two.

And while we’re talking about Gerrit Cole, don’t be surprised if the former #1 overall pick emerges as one of the top young arms in the National League in 2014, after a 10-7, 3.22 ERA debut in 2013 that saw the righty post a gutsy 2.45 ERA in two postseason appearances, gaining Manager Clint Hurdle’s surprising nod to start the deciding Game 5 against the Cardinals over veteran A.J. Burnett.

2014 a potential make-or-break year for Pedro Alvarez

2014 a potential make-or-break year for Pedro Alvarez

3 Down

Worst case scenario

Far more question marks arise in the Pirates’ rotation than many realized. Francisco Liriano is still the ace of the staff, but regresses from his 16-8, 3.02 ERA campaign that named him NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2013. Cole struggles in his sophomore year, as National League hitters adjust to his tendencies with the “book” now out on him. Wandy Rodriguez, shelved since early in 2013 with a lingering forearm injury- but back after exercising a $13,000,000 player option- experiences discomfort again in June, and is released from the team. Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton pitch inconsistently after stretches of dominance a year earlier, and “big” offseason expenditure Edinson Volquez proves that spending $5,000,000 on a guy coming off of a 9-12, 5.71 ERA, 60 ERA+ season is never a good idea.

With only two hitters in the entire lineup capable of hitting 25 HR’s, the offense sputters, and the team lingers below .500 much of the season, missing the playoffs.

Areas of concern

For a team coming off of a 94-win season, there are many. The rotation has a significant hole without Burnett’s 191 IP, 209 K, and 3.30 ERA. If Wandy Rodriguez can’t return healthy and contribute, and if pitching coach Ray Searage can’t work his “pitching whisperer” routine on Volquez, the rotation will spend much of the season searching for answers below Liriano and Cole. For as many props as Searage deserves for resurrecting Liriano’s career, the Pirates brought in a very similar type of pitcher to Volquez in former Giant Jonathan Sanchez in 2013, only to have Sanchez last only 4 starts (11.85 ERA) before being released. And unlike Volquez, Sanchez wasn’t earning $5,000,000- which is going to make tight-fisted team executives keep Volquez around longer than his performance may dictate.

The offense has two glaring holes at the largest power-demand positions on the field, and GM Huntington made no serious attempt to fix either this offseason. Prior to the assumed arrival of Gregory Polanco to RF, the Pirates are making due with some combination of Jose Tabata (.771 OPS, 119 OPS+, but only 6 HR in 2013), a hopefully healthy Travis Snider (.614 OPS, 75 OPS+), new acquisition Jaff Decker (10 HR, .824 OPS at AAA San Diego), and possibly resurgent former prospect Andrew Lambo (32 HR, .922 OPS between AA-AAA).

First base is even more dire. Gaby Sanchez returns to the short side of an expected platoon, as the right-handed bat is anemic to RHP. But who will the Pirates pair with him to conquer the majority of plate appearances? Lambo is probably the fans’ choice, but reports out of Spring Training are that the former Dodger farmhand is only now beginning to learn the position from scratch. The only other in-house options are Chris McGuiness (11 HR, .792 OPS AAA Texas) and 30-year old Travis Ishikawa (9 HR, .854 OPS AAA Baltimore and Chicago AL), whom the Pirates recently compared to the Miami-bound Garrett Jones, when perhaps the Pirates should’ve simply…kept Garrett Jones, if they had no other plan.

Two ideal offseason fits at 1B would’ve been Cuban defector Jose Abreu (signed with the White Sox for 6 years, $68MM) or Mike Napoli (23 HR, .842 OPS, 129 OPS+ with Boston). Either could’ve been signed and still kept the Pirates’ payroll among the 7 lowest in baseball, but telling Pirates’ ownership to spend meaningful money on free agents goes over about as well as telling Justin Bieber not to get arrested.

Who needs to bounce back from a down 2013

One reason many projections have the Pirates regressing in 2014 stems from the fact that the majority of the roster met or exceeded expectations during their 94-win season. Ironically, All-Star SP Jeff Locke is a prime bounce back candidate, as his 2013 first half (8-2 2.15 ERA, .202 BAA) was the polar opposite of his second (2-5, 6.12 ERA, .308 BAA). Locke joins a trivia question of a very small group of Major Leaguers who made the All-Star team, and were demoted to the minors by the end of the same season. In reality, the 6’0″ lefty is not as dominant as his first half split, and not as hittable as the second. Locke needs to provide stability to the middle of the Pirates’ rotation.

Elsewhere on the splits front, C Russell Martin must rekindle the success the veteran backstop had in his first half (.739 OPS), as the .651 OPS Martin posted from July-September puts the longtime Dodger in danger of losing the primary catcher job to hot-starting former 1st round pick Tony Sanchez (10 HR, .845 OPS AA-AAA), although the veteran-philic Hurdle won’t bench Martin without a fight.

 

In summary, the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates will be better than at least 20 of the previous 21 clubs since 1993. But had Pirates’ ownership finally followed through on their promises to fans of competitive payrolls, we could be having a serious conversation about the Pirates as legitimate National League pennant contenders, as opposed to merely pondering whether the team can come close to meeting last year’s performance. But when you have an ownership group placing higher priority on profitability than winning, this is the best for which Pirates’ fans can hope.

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